Keep Your Salespeople Psyched!

Traffic is down. So are sales. Newspaper headlines are uniformly negative. So how do you keep your salespeople’s morale from drooping as well?

It’s a real problem, say retailers.

“My salespeople are working just as hard as they did last year for less money,” notes Brian Toone, president and chief executive officer of the Jewelry Design Center in Spokane, Wash. “That can be discouraging.”

Kate Peterson of Performance Concepts says she’s seen stores that have been infected by the “doom and gloom” attitude. “I see it all the time,” she says. “A customer comes in and says, ‘I bet business is slow for you guys,’ and you see the salespeople say, ‘This is as slow as we’ve ever been.’ That impacts the consumer.”

Sales trainers say it doesn’t have to be that way. Through open communication, increased incentives, and setting proper expectations, the negativity that surrounds us doesn’t have to permeate your store. Top sales trainers and retailers recommend the following:

Address reality. Jewelry Design Center’s Toone says you can’t assume employees understand what’s going on in your business. “The fear of the unknown is the biggest fear of all,” he says. “The biggest success I’ve had with my staff is letting them know what’s going on, being realistic, and communicating more than even they think is necessary. They eat it up. And then instead of wondering what you’re doing, they are in it with you.”

Peterson advises owners to be realistic but not pessimistic. “It’s not a matter of sugar coating,” she says. “You can’t deny reality. But you can say, ‘The larger economy is something I can’t change, and I am going to focus on what I can change.’”

David Peters, director of education for Jewelers of America, says store owners should hold regular meetings and be more in touch with employees. “It could be any type of face time that reassures the employee that things are OK,” he says. “Owners need to connect and partner with their employees during hard times and make it more than a traditional boss/employee relationship. There need to be training, counseling, and mentoring.”

Don’t let negativity in. There is enough bad feeling out there; owners and managers have to prevent those bad feelings from seeping into the store. Peters says store owners should try to filter out negativity. For example, don’t leave newspapers around. “Even if the owner is dealing with a life-or-death business situation, they have to keep that out of the discussion,” he says. “I’m not saying they need to hide critical information, but they have to be positive.”

Say, for example, your sales are down. “Salespeople don’t need to know that you lost $20,000 last month,” Peters says. “But they need to know that last month was not a good month. And then the owner should add: ‘Here is what we are doing to make next month better.’” He says if the owners overhear salespeople indulging in negativity, they shouldn’t reprimand them but “steer the conversation in a more positive direction.”

Brad Huisken, sales trainer and JCK columnist, suggests devoting store meetings to success stories such as how a salesperson up-sold a customer or made a significant sale. “Focus on your strengths and not the weaknesses,” he says. “If something negative has to be said, make sure it’s done on a one-on-one basis.”

Jeff Briceland, store manager of Thom Duma Jewelers in Warren, Ohio, says he tries to assure employees that the current downturn is just part of a cycle. “When the cycle is over, we are going to have a different customer base, but we are still going to be here,” he says. “We still have a lot of loyal customers, and we are not filing for bankruptcy.”

He thinks customers notice when salespeople are down. “There is so much negative news out there, we try to give the customers something to smile about and to be positive,” he adds. “So many of the people coming through the door have faced some difficult times, and we may be the only people all day who have been positive with them.”

Stress what’s good about the jewelry business. “We are in the greatest business in the world, because we get to share happy moments with people,” Briceland says. “We have beautiful things here. We could be digging ditches or being laid off from digging ditches.”

Don’t stop training. “The biggest mistake is to cut back on training,” says Peterson. “The biggest excuse people have for not training their staff is that they’re too busy. Well, if the time to fix the bridge isn’t when there are cars on it, then the middle of the night when there are no cars on it is the exact right time to do it.”

Peterson notes that it doesn’t have to be traditional training. “It can be as simple as pulling down information and having a 20-minute meeting once a day,” she says. “Because otherwise not only is your staff not selling, they are not learning things as well.”

Huisken notes that training is particularly important when traffic is down, since it allows the staff to better serve the customers they do get.

Keep people busy. Since down times tend to involve salespeople standing around doing very little, that’s the time to increase outreach efforts, Peters says. “All the research I’ve looked at said that small-business owners during economic downturns tend to cut back their outreach efforts,” he notes. “But most outreach is easy and relatively inexpensive. It’s very easy for a salesperson to make a quick phone call or write notes to customers. So then, instead of focusing on the store being empty, they are focusing on a positive place.”

Ken Rutz, owner of Jewelers Touch, in Placentia, Calif., finds keeping the staff active with traffic drivers like repairs and custom work keeps spirits up. “If your store is busy, there is an energy when people walk in the door,” he says. “It becomes a fun atmosphere as opposed to so many retail stores today.”

Toone notes his staff was recently re-energized after a three-day bridal event. “It was designed to create traffic more than sales,” he says. “It created energy and a bit of bonding. I found the positive feeling has gone way past the event.”

Increase games and contests. Huisken suggests that owners should boost contests like “pick my pocket” or “pass the buck”—just to keep people’s excitement and spirits up. “The contests don’t have to cost that much money,” he says. “The rewards can be free, or virtually free, like public recognition or a letter of commendation.”

Gerhard Gschwandtner, founder and publisher of Selling Power magazine, notes that sometimes monetary incentives are less effective than those tailored to the salesperson’s wants, like long weekends or days off. “When it comes to creating incentives, you really have to make it meaningful to the person,” he says. “Everyone today says they want money, but if you just use it to pay the electric bill, who is going to talk about that? But there are people who fill their living rooms with incentive trophies, so there has to be some bragging rights to that. If you give something that is memorable and meaningful to the person, they will talk about it all year long.”

The owner needs to be more involved on the floor. “The owners have to be out there listening,” Huisken says. “You don’t want to let a consumer go without every opportunity to make a sale. That doesn’t mean they need to be pushy and aggressive, but they need to know when to turn a sale over.”

Gschwandtner advises managers to be more involved with the business in general. “The mistake I see a lot is, when the going gets tough, a lot of sales managers hide in the corner office and they go over the numbers,” he says. “That is not where they can make a difference. They can make a difference when they are out with their people.”

Watch your expectations. “If we set goals that were the same as two years ago, that would get frustrating for the salespeople and the store as a whole,” Rutz says. “We try to take a realistic approach.”

Peters agrees, noting too high expectations set employees up for failure. “Make sure your goals are ones that employees can meet or exceed and feel good about,” he says.

Gschwandtner says tough times call for shorter periods for sales incentives. “If you make them shorter, then all of a sudden people don’t worry if they are off for the year,” he says. “They are just looking at the next 10 yards and what they can do to move things forward.”